When we look at Terrence Malick’s filmography, The Tree of Life will probably end up as one of his most important film. It not only has a lot of his personality in the text of the film, but it’s also where he begins to become more experimental even if the soft-spoken attitude of his previous features is still present. His follow up, the laughably self-conscious To the Wonder fell in love with its own notions of love to the point of becoming a noxious experience. Thankfully, his new movie, Knight of Cups, cast its eye elsewhere and looks at external choices rather than just making another love story about love loving a love that loves. The downside is that Malick’s new approach likely won’t have any affect on those who weren’t wowed by To the Wonder other than curing any persistent insomnia.
Rick (Christian Bale) is a writer in Hollywood who has fallen into a life of empty partying and soulless relationships. The opening narration tells us of a prince (Rick) who went to find a pearl that would give him wisdom, but he drank a potion that caused him to forget his mission and now he is trapped in a perpetual bacchanalia of regret. We’re then taken to see other important figures in Rick’s life like his brother (Wes Bentley), father (Brian Dennehy), ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), and girlfriends (Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, and Natalie Portman) who try to put Rick on the path to enlightenment.
This is all done through the Malick filter, which is Emmanuel Lubezki’s floating, pretty cinematography that’s highly reminiscent of his work with Malick on To the Wonder combined with Hanan Townshend’s haunting score, and plenty of whispered narration from the characters. These are the staples of a Terrence Malick movie now just as explosions are the staples of a Michael Bay movie, but I’m not sure that these elements make Knight of Cups any more powerful or insightful. Again, Malick risks wandering into self-parody, and the only thing that holds him back is that the themes in Knight of Cups at least feel worth exploring.
That’s provided you can stay conscious enough for the journey. Knight of Cups, with its soft voice and meandering nature, lacks any urgency whatsoever. It’s a movie that’s both cinematic and yet wholly uninteresting in engaging with its audience on conventional terms, which is fine. I can’t fault Knight of Cups for being experimental or for refusing to adhere to traditional narrative forms. And I wouldn’t want Terrence Malick to be anyone but himself. But by the same token, I find the films he makes to be incredibly soporific, and I was fighting to stay awake throughout Knight of Cups.
That not to say it’s a “bad” movie, but I believe Malick leaves so much space open that the film’s fans will pour in their own readings and then celebrate Knight of Cups for it’s “depth.” I don’t think Knight of Cups is necessarily shallow, but I do believe he pushes a great deal of responsibility for reading into the film onto the viewer rather than making any arguments himself. Like the characters, he’s whispering some musings on existence and conflict.
It’s appropriate that the film’s title is taken from tarot cards, which is a form of cold reading where the cards can provide broad definitions and it’s the reader who tries to give them form. Malick does the same with Knight of Cups, and those who are taken with those readings will likely be electrified. But those like myself who aren’t buying into what the cards and the reader have to say will probably be peacefully dreaming at the table.